Being an unfortunate member of Manhattan’s elite, Wei Ying has attended more society events than he can remember. All the pretentious Sunday brunches with champagne and the world’s tiniest fucking finger sandwiches, deeply patriarchal debutante balls, and of course: masquerades.
He stares down at his mask, which is a ruby lace monstrosity that he grudgingly has to admit fits well on his face. Madam Yu would’ve seen to that, obviously, CEO of the fashion conglomerate that she is. Nothing but the best when representing the family.
With the mask on, his cheekbones seem sharper, lips redder, his lashes fanning out across the lace in a way that’s just on the side of beautiful.
But god. Look at him. He’s like sixteen layers of asshole wrapped up in a Valentino suit.
“A-Jie,” he whines, burying his face in the ruffles of her wisteria-like dress, “do we have to go. I mean, I know we’re already in the fucking limo, but do we have to go. This is a terrible engagement gift and you really shouldn’t have asked in the first place, but either way we're like a half-hour late. No one would miss us. Let's run away. I can buy you all the diamonds you want, like a proper gift for your engagement.”
“Where would you run?” A-Jie asks, laughing. She pets his hair indulgently and he sighs, sinks into it.
"Anywhere," he mumbles. A pause. "We can get Subway."
"And make our mother hate us for eating cheap food?"
"Hey, Subway was great in Connecticut."
"A-Ying," she murmurs, change in voice so fast that it leaves his head reeling, "I know it's been hard getting into the swing of things, but I promise it'll be okay. Everyone will have their masks on. It's the perfect opportunity for you to make your re-entrance into society. If you’re planning on staying, that is."
"Is that what Madam Yu said?"
"It's what I'm saying," A-Jie says gently, holding his face so he can meet her eyes, warm and fond. "I missed you while you were away at boarding school. I'm glad you're back. I want you to stay."
His throat closes up at her words, and he sits back upright so he doesn't have to look at her when he says, "Well, you might be the only one."
"Don't say that. I'm sure your Lan Zhan missed you."
All the breath in his lungs leaves him at the mention of Lan Zhan.
"Lan Zhan," he manages to get out, gripping the smooth red fabric of his slacks, "right."
Lan Zhan. Where to fucking begin with Lan Zhan?
When Wei Ying left for boarding school three years ago, he hadn't told a single person. Not Jiang Cheng, not A-Jie; just Madam Yu, begging on his knees that he needed to get out of the city, be anywhere but here.
Madam Yu looked at him, and he knew what she saw whenever she looked at him: a troublemaker. A no-good son. Really, packing Wei Ying off to boarding school was a neat solution for the both of them.
A part of Wei Ying expected it to be permanent, living out those months in fuck-all Connecticut. No alcohol, no weed, nothing but himself and the suburbs and piles and piles of homework.
Lan Zhan didn't send him any letters. He tried not to be too hurt by that, because, well. It was Wei Ying's fault for leaving without telling him in the first place. If he was in Lan Zhan's place, Wei Ying wouldn't have sent any letters too.
Or. Maybe he would have, since it was Lan Zhan. But, ah.
"We're here," A-Jie's voice comes suddenly, breaking him out of his reverie. He tugs his face away from the glittering night lights of the city to A-Jie, who is giving him a soft smile.
"A-Ying," she murmurs, offering a satin-gloved hand, "it'll be okay."
He takes her palm and, with a bracing inhale, he climbs out of the limo.
Inside the venue, New York's hottest club has been transformed into a ball of dim lights strung across the walls, silken ivory curtains draped over the windows, leaving only the center of the ballroom lit bright with the sparkling chandelier.
Well, Wei Ying didn't get his reputation for being Wei Ying for nothing. Letting go of A-Jie's hand with an affectionate squeeze, he makes a beeline for the bar, smiling at the way she laughs behind him.
Being a ball for mostly underage students around their late teens, the bar isn't technically supposed to serve any sort of hard liquor, but if memory serves correctly, he knows that wherever Nie Huaisang is invited, alcohol follows.
He arrives just in time to see Nie Huaisang himself tipping his flask into the bottles of sparkling cider and champagne. With a grin that he bites down on, Wei Ying creeps up behind one of his oldest friends and breathes in his ear, "Boo."
"I DON'T KNOW I DON'T KNOW," Nie Huaisang shrieks instantly, which is so fucking predictable that Wei Ying has to take a moment to double over and laugh.
Nothing like home sweet home.
"W-Wei Ying?" comes Nie Huaisang's hesitant voice a few seconds later, "is—oh my god, is that you?"
Wei Ying straightens, the remnants of his laugh dying on his lips, and gives a jaunty little wave. "Hey.”
With another shriek, Nie Huaisang hurls himself at Wei Ying, and he laughs again, turning it into a half-spin so that Nie Huaisang, no matter how small he is, can't topple the entire bar.
"When did you get back?" Nie Huaisang demands, once they've pulled apart, eyes wide behind his green mask. "Holy shit, I didn’t even recognize you. Like, okay, three years, but—damn. You’ve practically pulled a Lan Zhan, that’s fucking insane. Wow. No one heard a thing! Holy shit, you're actually back!"
Wei Ying grins and tries not to focus on the mention of Lan Zhan, whatever Nie Huaisang meant. “Wow, don’t make it sound like I was dead.”
“But you practically were!” Nie Huaisang wails, with a dramatic flap of his arms, one of which is still holding onto the flask. Wei Ying eyes it, amused. “No, listen, you don’t understand. For like, the first two weeks while you were gone, everyone expected you either to be dead, in the hospital, in rehab, or in the middle of pranking us all with your mysterious disappearance so that we’d fail our fall semester finals, and then you’d shuttle us off to some great party to make up for it.”
Wei Ying stares at him. That’s. “Rehab?”
“It’s not like we hoped you were in rehab,” Nie Huaisang hurries to say, but he’s averting his eyes, which tells him that while people might not have hoped he was in rehab, they certainly fucking expected it. And that’s, well. Can’t say he didn’t expect that.
“Right,” Wei Ying says, feeling—scraped hollow, in a way. “Rehab.”
“Well, rumors were flying around that you were in boarding school. Can you blame us for not really thinking it was true?”
“Is it really that hard to believe?”
“Wei Ying,” says Nie Huaisang, the notes of his exasperation coming across clear even over the brassy jazz music. “Come on. You were the most hardcore partier out here. And you—I bet you came to the bar first, didn’t you?”
The realization dawns on him like ice in his veins. Three years he was away, being nothing but good and law-abiding and serious, and yet—one step back into Manhattan, one step back into this world was all it took for the reflexes to kick in anew. Nie Huaisang is right. Boarding school or not, he’s still the same asshole he was three years ago.
“Wei Ying,” Nie Huaisang says, whiplashing back into tentative, “are you—”
Wei Ying cuts him off with a tired wave of his hand. “Listen,” he says, the sound of the jazz and his own voice falling away in his ears, “you smuggle anything good in here?”
A blink, and then Nie Huaisang’s expression lights up, like fucking fireworks on the Fourth. All the worst memories of his best hedonistic days. Weed, nicotine, the range from Everclear to dry martinis.
New fucking York.
Three flasks of Nie Huaisang’s mysterious mixed alcohols later, the world is swooping sufficiently under his Oxfords and the jazz is filtering in only at the fourth beat, just as he wanted. He’s holding a flute of spiked champagne—given by Nie Huaisang with a careless wink, which only promises the worst—and he’s already spilled half of it on his suit by the time he makes it to the far end of the hall, where he knows a swirling staircase leads to the locked rooftop.
But of course locks aren’t anything to him. He got rid of that problem by the time he was in seventh grade.
Wei Ying doesn’t sit outside, though. It’s raining outside, for one, and sometimes it’s nice to crack open the door and let the night air breeze in, keeping him tied to coherency by a bare thread. He lounges at the top of the wrought iron stairs and stares down at the bottom of his glass. How fucked up would he be if he downed this whole thing in one go?
“Rooftop access is forbidden,” comes an unfamiliar low voice, all but dripping with disapproval. “You should not be up here.”
Wei Ying suppresses his urge to sigh. Twenty minutes. Was twenty minutes alone too much to ask for?
He swirls the glass in his hand and considers it. Considers it for another second longer, and what the hell. He knocks it back, throat bobbing as the nostalgic fire of hard tequila burns down his esophagus. Wei Ying’s an old hand at this. He doesn’t wince, just wipes his mouth with the back of his hand before offering the stranger in white what’s hopefully a charming smile.
“Well,” he says, “that means you shouldn’t be up here, either.”
The stranger studies him. It’s too dark up in the stairwell to make out his features, but the moonlight and the faint glow of the city is enough for Wei Ying to make out the slope of an elegant nose, a jaw sharp enough to rival models, the stream of long hair spilling across his moonlight-pale tux like a black waterfall. There’s a blue ribbon draped across his neck in a graceful facsimile of a tie. He’s broad across the chest, chin held up high. Every inch of him, elite.
“We will head back down together, then,” the stranger decides.
It’s so sudden that it startles a choked laugh out of Wei Ying, maybe one of the only genuine ones he’s felt tonight. “Oh, just like that?”
A somber nod.
“Christ,” Wei Ying says, unable to help his smile. “You’re something, huh. Well, okay.” He scoots closer to the railing and pats the space beside him. “I’m sure you’re up here for some air too. There’s plenty of space. You should join me.”
A moment passes as the stranger observes him, and for some reason, the weight of his gaze is so familiar that his throat aches, like he’s knocked back another shot of Nie Huaisang’s alcohol. Like Lan Zhan is looking at him again.
Of course, he’s considered the thought that Lan Zhan could be here.
But three years ago, getting Lan Zhan to any party was carving out teeth with a spoon or something. Fucking impossible. So much work. The majority of the glares that Wei Ying suffered back then were party-related in some form or another, all his distaste coming off like the vibes of a wet cat.
“I do not wish to go,” said Lan Zhan back in the summer before freshman year, high up Lan Zhan’s penthouse on the couch. He was frowning so hard that somewhere along the way, it turned into an actual expression. Not just a minute furrow of the brows, but a full-fledged frown: the corners of his pink mouth tight and lowered, golden eyes gone slitted, cheek full of baby fat twitching.
Puberty hit Wei Ying earlier and finished faster. He cooed and made to squeeze Lan Zhan’s cheek, laughing when Lan Zhan slapped it away with an audible ring. “Lan Zhan,” he crooned, draping his arm around Lan Zhan’s ever-stiffening shoulders, “don’t be like that. Graduating middle school! It’ll be fun. You haven’t gone out in ages. People will start to think that the Second Jade of Lan is dead, you know.”
“There would be an announcement in the papers,” came Lan Zhan’s flat reply.
God, Lan Zhan was fucking hilarious. He busted Wei Ying up without even trying. “Well, of course they’d announce it,” said Wei Ying, grinning, “but people will speak, you know.”
“I don’t care.”
“You have to care a little.”
A hard stare was all the response that Wei Ying got in return, with this aura of deep displeasure that told him Wei Ying would possibly lose an arm if he held onto Lan Zhan for one more second, so obviously Wei Ying scooted behind him on the white leather couch, slung his leg on Lan Zhan’s other side, and wrapped his other arm around Lan Zhan’s waist, propping his chin up on Lan Zhan’s shoulder.
Lan Zhan went still.
“Lan Zhan,” he purred, “don’t be like that. Give this Wei Ying a little love and say you’ll come. Pretty please?”
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asked.
Another beat of silence, and then, “Shameless,” Lan Zhan hissed, and tore out of his arms so fast that it left Wei Ying stumbling to the floor, laughing. His ears were pink, and.
Lan Zhan and parties. Not a match.
“Come on,” says Wei Ying, when the stranger continues his apparent vow of silence. “I promise I won’t bite.”
“Unless,” Wei Ying says, with faked contemplation, complete with a finger stroking his chin, “that’s something you want.”
The unexpected response leaves Wei Ying blinking, open-mouthed. That’s. Wait.
“What?” he says dumbly.
“Okay,” the stranger repeats, and climbs up the stairs, one by one, and hold on—shit—
“Wait,” Wei Ying babbles, “I didn’t—”
The stranger sits down on the steps, and Wei Ying falls silent. He watches as the stranger folds his hands in his lap, posture looser, spine no longer ramrod-straight. Still more poise than basically every spoiled asshole below.
When the stranger doesn’t move again, understanding crawls through him like the heat in his cheeks. “Oh,” Wei Ying croaks. God, fuck, that’s so embarrasing. What is he, a freshman? “You meant.”
The stranger blinks. This close, it’s enough to make out the fine details in his cloud-patterned mask, the swirls of metallic silver giving him almost a sense of delicate grace. Those cheekbones, that pale face like moonlight. Straight, serious brows, and a more serious set of eyes below that. It’s the kind of uniquely beautiful that’s hard to find. Certainly one that Wei Ying never found in fucking Connecticut.
“You are staring,” the stranger says quietly, and Wei Ying jerks away, horrified, but—the stranger is turning his head away, and oh. Oh. His ears are turning pink.
God, he misses Lan Zhan so much it aches.
“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying blurts, before he can stop himself. Get it the fuck together, Wei Ying. “Sorry, you just—reminded me of my friend.”
“Yeah,” he says, and saying it is like prying out his own rib cage with his bare hands and nails, but—“Or. I think. We haven’t talked in a while. He probably doesn’t consider me a friend anymore.”
“Oh.” A pause, and then, “Why do you think so?”
“A gossiper, are you.”
“No,” Wei Ying says, waving off the apologies that he can already sense coming, “it’s okay. I mean, I brought it up. It’s not—not a big deal. Anymore. I guess.”
There’s a silence that feels almost deeply judgemental, like super fucking bitchy with the way the stranger turns back to study him.
Sure enough: “You should not lie,” the stranger tells him.
“Oh, you’re telling me I’m a terrible liar?”
A considering beat, before the stranger nods. Wei Ying grins. All the bubbles from the champagne and the warm heat of the tequila rising to his head. “Stranger, dear stranger,” says Wei Ying, teasing, “save this humble one some face, hm?”
“That would require having face to save.”
“Is that an insult? Are you insulting me? This is the best day of my life.”
“It is an observation.” The stranger gestures at their masks, in a bitchy way that Wei Ying is growing to understand is just his Natural Way Of Being, like he’s pointing out the fact that they’re both wearing masks and thus have no face to save, you fucking idiot.
“Jesus,” Wei Ying says without thinking. “You really remind me of my friend.” A startled blink, and he realizes what he’s just said to a virtual stranger, and he scrambles to say, “Not in like, a bad way! He’s a good person, don’t worry. It’s, uh.” His mouth feels dry, like the aftermath of a bad hangover. There’s a click of his throat as he swallows. “It’s a compliment.”
“I see,” says the stranger. “Thank you.”
This time, the quiet that lurks in the air is heavy enough that Wei Ying begins to wonder if he should just head down again, shitty jazz music and all those dancing people aside, but then the stranger says, “Tell me about your friend.”
“Your friend,” the stranger repeats. Something about his voice seems—raw, in a way. “Please.”
Well, who is he to reject a request from a kind stranger.
“My friend,” Wei Ying begins, testing out the words on his tongue, “well, he’s really fucking nice.” There’s a faint exhale that comes off amused, like a half-laugh, and Wei Ying grins, twirls the empty glass in his fingers as he continues, “He’s so nice that you wouldn’t believe it. I mean, you probably wouldn’t believe it because everyone thinks he’s so bitchy, but he’s just got one of those faces, it’s not his fault.”
“One of those faces?”
“Yeah, like—” He gestures at the stranger’s face, which, in hindsight, is startlingly like Lan Zhan’s in terms of… aura, and shit. The cheeks are sharper, and the stranger isn’t as soft around the edges like Lan Zhan is—or was. And with the mask, Wei Ying can’t make out the subtle details, but overall, it’s the same kind of face. Beautiful in a cold, ethereal sort of way. Like blue-skies December after the snowfall. “Like yours, actually.”
“Mine,” the stranger echoes, in this disbelieving way.
“Dude, I don’t know if you noticed, but I have a feeling you’ve got one of those resting pretty faces. Like you could come off bitchy, but you’re so hot that it wouldn’t matter. That type of thing.”
Flatly: “I am not hot.”
“Dude,” says Wei Ying again, with the great feeling that comes with the general what the fuckery is this sort of incredulity. “What do you want me to say? You’re pretty? ‘Cause absolutely, pretty boy, you sure are. But that still doesn’t change the fact that you’re hot. Take it from me. Certified hot person.”
“You are so mean to me,” Wei Ying says, laughing, and for a moment the stranger freezes, going so still that Wei Ying can’t help but blurt out, “Are you okay?”
The stranger is looking at him now, eyes wide behind his mask, with this kind of—terror, or, or shock, or disbelief or something. Wei Ying glances behind him, but there’s no axe murderer hovering a few steps away lying in wait. He turns back, shakes the stranger’s shoulder a little. Still no response.
“Um,” says Wei Ying, more than a little worried now, “are you—hey, speak to me here. Give me some sign. I’m gonna call the ambulance in like, two seconds if you don’t. You good?”
Dumbly, the stranger nods. Wei Ying breathes a sigh of relief. Well, the good news is that he didn’t accidentally kill the guy by talking him to death or whatever.
“You,” the stranger rasps after a moment. His voice is weirdly tight, rubbed raw. “What’s your name?”
Wei Ying blinks. “Me?”
He’s about to say Wei Ying when the first syllable falls to ashes on his tongue. The stranger might like who this random dude on the stairwell is, but he wouldn’t like Wei Ying. The person with the name and the reputation, the coward who got the hell out of Manhattan the moment things got rocky.
“We have masks for a reason,” says Wei Ying instead.
In response, the stranger’s lips go thin and white. Disapproval like a wet cat. Or disappointment. One of the many dis-words. All of them.
“How about this,” Wei Ying says, before he can stop himself. “When it’s masks off at midnight, I’ll show you. I—” His voice cracks in the middle, and he laughs it off, tugs at the end of his ponytail. Bad habits. Madam Yu tried to train the nerves out of him, but every once in awhile they still appear. God damn. “I think you’ll know who I am, anyway,” he says finally.
There’s a pause as the stranger gazes at him, with the renewed weight from the first moments of their meeting, as if he’s trying to look at and into Wei Ying all at once. Wei Ying doesn’t squirm. Too much experience from bearing the same gaze with Lan Zhan.
But he does gaze back.
Eventually the stranger nods. “Okay,” he agrees quietly. “Midnight.” Then, “Tell me more about your friend.”
The change in topic makes him go shaky with relief in a way that he knows would’ve brought him to his knees if he wasn’t already sitting, and Wei Ying grins, props his chin in his palm. “What, the gossip I gave you earlier wasn’t enough?”
“So demanding. Alright, well. Give me a second.”
The truth is that Wei Ying doesn’t even have to think about Lan Zhan to already come up with a million things to say. He could fill a fucking encyclopedia, title it The World of Lan Zhan, Vol. 1. There’d be six volumes at least, one for every year that they’ve known each other.
But how do you tell a stranger about that? How do you begin to describe a person and shape them right, the way you see them? The way everyone should see them? Words aren’t a photograph; and Wei Ying’s always been bad at taking pictures anyway.
Still, he comes up with one. “He cares about his family,” Wei Ying says, setting down the champagne flute on the stairs with a gentle clink. “A lot. Not in a obligatory ‘I have to care for them because I need their money’ way you see all the fucking time with these elites, but genuinely. With all his heart. It’s how he loves.”
The stranger’s eyes are steady on him, an unwavering flame.
“Like, when he was fifteen, right. I got this piercing”—Wei Ying gestures at his right ear, where a single silver earring in the shape of a cloud dangles from his ear— “when I was fourteen, and for an entire year I tried to convince him to get one ‘cause I wanted us to match, you know.”
“The gay ear?”
Wei Ying’s laugh bursts out of him like a ripened fruit. “Yeah,” he says, grinning, “exactly like that. Solidarity, you know? But he was so fucking—stubborn about not getting one, being all, ‘It’s irresponsible, it’s unhygienic, it’s unseemly, it’s not proper, blah blah blah.’”
“It is irresponsible,” the stranger murmurs.
That just makes Wei Ying laugh harder, leaning in closer to tug at the ruby moon earring that’s also dangling from the stranger’s right lobe. “Yeah?” he asks. “So why do you have one, hm?”
“I am irresponsible.”
“Oh, I’m sure. Someone who says ‘rooftop access is forbidden’ must be totally irresponsible, fucking off their rockers, snorting heroin day in and day out.”
“I wasn’t aware that you snort heroin.”
“You don’t,” says Wei Ying, biting down on his smile, “you irresponsible man.”
A tiny curve of the stranger’s mouth. “Continue.”
“If you insist. So my friend, right, and the piercings.”
Wei Ying remembers the way Lan Zhan’s mile-wide streak of stubbornness appeared. Not even a mile-wide. The strip of Manhattan, maybe, or the continental United States.
“I would rather die than get a piercing,” Lan Zhan announced then, with all the dramatics of being fourteen-years-old. They were lounging on Lan Zhan’s bed, on top of the silken bluebell comforter, thread count of two fucking million. Or they were lounging, at least, before Wei Ying brought up the whole piercing situation and Lan Zhan shot out of bed to glare at him, white-knuckled with his disapproval.
“Oh, come on,” Wei Ying wheedled, tugging at the hem of Lan Zhan’s pale, loose blouse. Lan Zhan smacked his hand away, and he laughed. “Don’t be like that, sweetheart, come on, it won’t even hurt.”
“No. I told you I would rather die.” Vehement, strong. That was already fucking hilarious, hearing Lan Zhan say those words so fucking unlike him, and then Lan Zhan went on, “I am also sure that Uncle would disown me if I got a piercing.”
“Oh, and you don’t want that, do you,” said Wei Ying, and Lan Zhan nodded, serious.
Of course people can change within three years. Wei Ying knows that—or, he should’ve known that better than anyone. But he knows Lan Zhan, and more than anything, Lan Zhan is steady, the way a river flows downstream, or a tree sways with the wind but remains rooted firm in the ground. Even at fifteen he was the most decisive person Wei Ying knew.
Nothing could change his mind. Not even Wei Ying.
“He’s stubborn,” Wei Ying says finally, thinking about all that. “Like—super fucking stubborn. So devoted to getting this approval from his family, more than every other fuck-up at this party, you know? And he can get it, ‘cause he’s such a perfect son. It’s ridiculous.”
“Mm,” says the stranger, and then, “I doubt that he always gets their approval.”
“Oh?” Wei Ying leans in but the stranger doesn’t so much as blink at how close their faces have gotten, just gives him a placid, even gaze. Wei Ying draws back a little, disappointed. “And how are you so sure about that?”
“A feeling,” the stranger says.
“You’re making these bold claims based on a feeling?” Wei Ying asks, amused.
But the stranger blinks at him, eyelids lowering a half degree, dark lashes catching on the silver lace of his mask. Wei Ying’s breath catches in his throat.
“Yes,” the stranger murmurs.
Fuck, Wei Ying thinks. If you were Lan Zhan, I’d…
Before he can even finish the thought, he’s leaning in.
Wei Ying’s not even sure if he kisses the stranger first, or if the stranger reels him in with the hand fisted in his hair, just knows that one moment they're looking at each other and the next they’re kissing, kissing honest and real and heated, mouth warm and fierce and champagne-sweet against his, so hard it’s almost violent, the way their mouths move together. Wei Ying hitches a leg over the stranger’s lap, and the stranger rakes his hands from Wei Ying’s hair and down his body. Grips strong under his thighs, and hauls him over so Wei Ying is straddling him. It’s so hot he feels a moan slip out of his mouth. There’s an answering hum, and the stranger’s biting Wei Ying’s bottom lip, and it hurts, but it’s another point of heat that pools deep in Wei Ying’s belly, just fucking filling him up with burning desire, screaming, Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me.
It’s so good that time slips a little, all the background noises falling away to the stranger’s soft hitches of breath, all sensations numb except for the way the stranger runs his palm up and down Wei Ying’s spine, presses kisses to Wei Ying’s mouth and cheeks and jaw, the hollow of his throat, grazing teeth against his collarbone.
“You like to bite, huh,” Wei Ying breathes, voice giving way to a gasp when the stranger nips viciously at his skin, and the stranger rasps out, “Your suit,” frustration fucking dripping from his voice, fingers working at the buttons of Wei Ying’s shirt.
And they go like that for who knows how fucking long. Wei Ying doesn’t care, he just knows it’s good because the stranger’s hands are hot on Wei Ying’s body, and below him the stranger’s chest is strong and firm, and he’s making these little desperate noises like it’s dragged out of him by Wei Ying’s touch. Fuck, Wei Ying’s never been better. For three fucking years he hasn’t allowed himself to feel like this, submit himself to another person’s touch, and Lan Zhan—
Wei Ying’s blood goes cold.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying chokes out, jerking back, and the stranger makes this disappointed noise, moves in closer, but Wei Ying scrambles up, yanking the buttons of his shirt closed, raking his hair smooth again, babbling, “Oh, god, Lan Zhan. Listen, I like you, like a lot, probably more than I should considering—we”—A choked off laugh—“since we just fucking met, but I can’t, okay, I’m sorry but I can’t—”
“Because you’re not Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying shouts, half-hysterical, wanting to laugh with it, but it’s not funny.
For three years, Wei Ying thought of him every fucking day. His pink ears, his gentle touch, his goddamn bitchy frowns and half-smiles and the way his fingers were calloused after all those years of violin practice. His smooth hair, his refusal to let Wei Ying copy his homework because you should do it yourself, Wei Ying; his adoration for every small creature, how he liked to catch bugs in a jar with deadly efficiency and usher them out instead of killing them. His secret love for Disney movies. Walking with him in Central Park, holding hands. His wrinkled nose at the smell of car exhaust and watery rot and smoke that sunk into the city. His face, looking at Wei Ying on so many nights that they slept over together over the years, curled up around each other on Lan Zhan’s soft bed, his pretty golden eyes bright in the dark.
The way they always seemed to find each other without meaning to; he missed all of it, like craving another person’s touch. It wasn’t another person, though. It was always Lan Zhan.
In Connecticut, at fucking boarding school, Wei Ying was so miserable without Lan Zhan, so exhausted by it that he couldn’t even muster up the urge to party. Look at that. A Wei Ying who didn’t want to party, because he was so stupid in love with his best friend.
Except apparently he’s not, since he’s okay with kissing a fucking stranger. Fuck.
Fuck. What kind of lowlife is he? Kissing strangers left and right the moment he lands in New York—
“Were you?” the stranger asks, voice hoarse, and Wei Ying shouldn’t find that hot because he’s supposed to be in love with Lan Zhan, and he is, and Wei Ying shouts, “No! God, you’re the only one I kissed since—and now I—god, I never should’ve come back,” and the stranger reaches for him but Wei Ying jerks away, stumbles down the steps, and behind him the stranger calls, “Wei Ying,” and Wei Ying snaps, “Don’t fucking touch me, you’re not—”
He freezes on the steps.
Wei Ying, the stranger said.
With the unfamiliar voice and that unfamiliar face. But that cadence. The way those syllables rolled off that tongue, have always sounded since they were ten, twelve, thirteen and sleeping over at each other’s place every other night, fourteen and cracking open Wei Ying’s first bottle of rum with disapproval hot on his back, fifteen and kissing each other just the once, the night before he left Manhattan for what he thought was forever.
Wei Ying’s fingers go tight around the railing. Every part of him feels like it’s shaking, from his knees to his hands to—to the fucking world, the way the ground seems to tremble below him.
“How,” he chokes out, not daring to turn out, “how did.”
He can’t go on.
“I knew you were Wei Ying,” says the stranger. Says Lan Zhan. Soft, quiet.
God, how the hell did Wei Ying not see it before?
There’s a ring of the iron as Lan Zhan descends the steps, one, two, three. Until Wei Ying can feel him behind, a space away.
“We’re wearing masks,” Wei Ying rasps out after a moment. “You couldn’t have known.”
“Not from the beginning, no.”
“When you laughed,” Lan Zhan says, like a whisper. “I knew then.”
Wei Ying’s heart drops to his feet. “Oh.”
“Mm.” This time, Wei Ying isn’t the one to break the silence. Another peal of the iron as Lan Zhan steps down one more, the heat of his body flush on Wei Ying’s back. “Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan. “Why did you leave?”
“Because.” It’s hard to breathe. “You know why.”
“I don’t. All I know is that you—” There’s a hitch of his breath, near inaudible, before Lan Zhan goes on, “You kissed me. The next day you were gone.”
“Well,” Wei Ying says.
When Lan Zhan puts it like that, it sounds cruel. He knew it was, the moment he begged Madam Yu to get him the fuck out of here, but it was being cruel and leaving, or being cruel and staying, and destroying Lan Zhan like he did everything else, watching everything Lan Zhan wanted—his uncle’s approval, being the good son, following in his brother’s footsteps—fall to ash. Wei Ying wouldn’t do that to him. “Lan Zhan,” he says, “you don’t get it.”
“So make me.”
Wei Ying whirls around, almost loses his balance with how fast he turns, but Lan Zhan’s hand shoots out to grab him around the waist, palm hot, burning through the layers of Wei Ying’s suit, and—that.
“That,” Wei Ying spits, ripping the mask off his face, hurling it to the floor, “that’s why.” Lan Zhan is staring at him, gold, real gold and pretty and everything he didn’t get to see for three years. Frustration boils up within him and the worst part is he can't tell the difference between that and the desire that's always lying inside, waiting for Lan Zhan to look at him, to touch him. “Because you see, Lan Zhan, I don’t know if you noticed but your uncle doesn’t like me," he says. "He didn’t like me when he found out that I was throwing all those parties behind Madam Yu’s back, he didn’t like me when I broke into your dad’s old liquor cabinet, and he certainly didn’t fucking like me when people were saying that I was doing drugs, heroin, crack, meth, all the prescription pills money could buy.”
With slow movements, like Lan Zhan’s afraid Wei Ying will run away if he moves too fast, Lan Zhan reaches up and unclasps his own mask. The ribbon trails free, and there’s the Lan Zhan that Wei Ying hasn’t seen in what feels like a lifetime: steady, beautiful.
“What does that matter?” Lan Zhan asks quietly.
“It matters because he saw us when we kissed.” Lan Zhan goes stiff, but Wei Ying goes on, ignoring the ache in his throat, “After, I was—I couldn’t sleep. It was way past your bedtime so I knew you were gone, but I was thinking about it, just nonstop, so fucking happy that you kissed me back, and I.” He inhales. “I went to get some air, scream a little.”
“Uncle found you.”
“Your uncle found me,” Wei Ying agrees. “And he said he saw us, and he didn’t care if you were with any boy, but it couldn’t be me. That's what he said. It couldn't be me. He knew who I was. All the bad stuff, obviously, and he said I needed to get out. So I got out. Booked a flight for Connecticut, got my transfer papers in a week, started again in boarding school. And I.” His grip tightens on the railing. “I didn’t come back for you. I came for A-Jie’s engagement party, and after that, I’m gonna leave. Go back. I’m not staying, Lan Zhan, no matter what you tell me.”
Lan Zhan is searching his face now, with this desperate sort of gaze. Wei Ying just blinks back at him, tired, exhausted. There’s nothing here that wasn’t already Lan Zhan’s to begin with, and the fact that this still rings true three years later… Well.
“You never cared what Uncle thought before,” says Lan Zhan finally.
“Au contraire,” says Wei Ying, with a tight smile, “I cared a lot.”
But Lan Zhan is already shaking his head. “No,” he says, and Wei Ying’s smile slips despite himself. “You didn’t. There is something you’re not telling me. What is it?”
“I told you everything. I’m sorry if it wasn’t up to your standards, sweetheart.”
“Wei Ying.” Suddenly Lan Zhan’s hands are cradling his face, forehead pressed against his, a thumb brushing over his mouth so careful and gentle. “Please.”
Wei Ying tries to pull away, but it’s no use. Like a role reversal, Lan Zhan’s the one clinging to Wei Ying now, fingers tight on Wei Ying’s sleeve. His expression is fucking—wretched. Miserable. Begging him, just once, to tell the truth.
Wei Ying is really the worst sort of person.
“He threatened to disown you.” The words come out without his permission, and Wei Ying shudders on his inhale. He can’t bring himself to look at Lan Zhan, so he averts his gaze and focuses on the red bricks of the wall. “He said if I didn’t leave you alone, he would disown you. I didn’t know what he meant by leaving you alone, if it was just at school, or, or not coming to your house, or never seeing you again, and—he never told me to go to boarding school, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying blurts, feeling Lan Zhan’s fingers fall from his sleeve, scrambling to hold his hand. “Lan Zhan, it’s not your uncle’s fault, he was worried, okay, and he was right, I was an awful influence.”
“You were not.”
“I was. Maybe I wouldn’t have turned you into some fucking addict or whatever, but you weren’t studying at all when I was there ‘cause I bothered you so fucking much, and I always took you away from your family dinners, and—” Again, Lan Zhan is shaking his head, always so fucking stubborn, childish, and it’s so frustrating that Wei Ying wants to run all over again. “Listen to me,” Wei Ying says, “listen, Lan Zhan, baobei, listen, okay, I didn’t care. You might not think so, but I didn’t care what I was doing to you—”
“You loved me—”
“I was fifteen,” Wei Ying half-shouts, and Lan Zhan reels back, hurt, and the regret that fills Wei Ying is so instant that it makes him feel sick, “and okay,” Wei Ying goes on, aching too, “I’m still in love with you, three fucking years later, call me the idiot ‘cause I am. I’m still in love with you. But you were the one thing, okay? You were the one thing I didn’t want to fuck up. Stupid as I was, I still knew that. So I left, alright? I got out.”
There’s a silence only interrupted by Wei Ying’s heavy breaths echoing in the stairwell, and then Lan Zhan says, “You should’ve told me you were leaving.”
Wei Ying chokes on a laugh, lets himself tip forward into Lan Zhan’s chest. He knows he doesn’t deserve it, but god, it is so cold and lonely. The weight of those three years on his shoulders. Like instinct, Lan Zhan’s arms come up to wrap around him.
“I really couldn’t,” Wei Ying mumbles. “If I did, you would’ve stopped me.”
Again: “You should’ve told me.” The stubborn asshole. Wei Ying doesn’t respond, and a moment later, he feels his hair fall around him, ponytail slipped loose. A gentle hand begins to card through the strands. “Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan, “I almost did get disowned while you were gone.”
At first the words don't register. They don't register a second time, and then the third time Wei Ying turns it over, he jerks. “What?”
“I got a piercing,” Lan Zhan continues. Realization snakes through him. Oh, god, he did. “I wanted to remember you because I wasn’t sure if you wanted to come back. Uncle almost disowned me when I came home, and then he almost disowned me again when I told him it was to remember you. My brother stopped him both times.”
Oh, hell. You fucking idiot.
“I don’t care,” Lan Zhan goes on, “if I am. Brother has told me that he will support me because, unlike Uncle, he knows who I am. With and without you. He knows that with you, I was a better person.”
Now that’s a lie if Wei Ying has ever heard one. “You were not. I made you worse.”
“You made me happy,” Lan Zhan corrects, soft.
Wei Ying’s breath stops dead in his throat.
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan, finally letting him go, just enough for them to look at each other, “come back. Stay.”
“Then I will get disowned,” Lan Zhan announces.
Fourteen or eighteen, it’s still the same. Do or die. He’s the type of person who catches bugs when it’d be easier to kill them, who never copies homework or lets people copy off him. Lan Zhan, who got a piercing despite it breaking every single household rule because he loved, true and full.
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan again, eyes searching for—him, Wei Ying realizes, “come back. Stay with me.”
At that, all the resistance, the excuses, the reasons why it’s a bad idea crumbles away. Lan Zhan. Second Jade of Lan, his love.
Never the easy way out with Lan Zhan.
“Okay,” says Wei Ying, and the agreement comes out of him like an exhale, a breath he can finally let out after years. Because it's him; it's Lan Zhan, and it's not Lan Qiren, face thunderous. It's not Madam Yu, agreeing without a second's hesitation. It's Lan Zhan, and he's asking. And Wei Ying will always say yes. “Okay," he says. "I’ll stay with you. But if I really do get you disowned, you can’t blame me, alright? You brought it upon yourself, and I was trying to be the good guy, and you corrupted me, you irresponsible man.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan agrees, and then he leans in.
Against his mouth, Wei Ying feels Lan Zhan smile.